Pritzker students explore single-payer health care at PNHP national conference

By Pamela Peters, MS1
Pritzker News, University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, December 4, 2013

With the recent enactment of key portions of the Affordable Care Act, health care reform has increasingly become a hot-button issue. Six students from Pritzker explored the option of single-payer health care reform by attending the annual meeting for the advocacy group Physicians for a National Program (PNHP) on November 2, 2013 in Boston. PNHP is a non-profit research and education organization of 19,000 physicians, medical students, and health professionals based in Chicago with chapters in almost every state. The turnout at the meeting set a new record for the organization, with 404 registrants from 38 states.

“The conference was a great opportunity to discuss the economic and medical realities of health care going forward under the ACA, as well as the role of physicians in pushing for change in how medical care is financed,” commented Brandon Berger, MS1. “To me, single payer is a solution to the prohibitive cost of health care, an opportunity to provide medical care in a way that doesn't discriminate based on ability to pay, and a public health initiative of enormous potential impact.”

At the meeting, Pritzker students had the opportunity to listen to presentations from a variety of speakers, such as Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, who outlined progress and barriers in creating a single-payer health care system for his state. Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, gave a talk entitled, “Patients and Profits,” and PNHP co-founders Dr. David Himmelstein and Dr. Steffie Woolhander updated attendees with the most recent statistics about the status of health care in America.

Pritzker students also had the opportunity to attend many student-specific workshop sessions, where medical students from around the country shared inspiring stories of activism and counseled newcomers on how to become more involved in the single-payer movement. Pritzker’s very own Scott Goldberg, MS2, who is a student delegate on the PNHP national board of directors, led a session entitled “Heroism vs. Evil in Medicine: Transitioning from Sympathizer to Activist.” Scott also founded the University of Chicago student chapter of PNHP, and spent time working with PNHP California this past summer to advocate for movement towards a state-based, single-payer health care system there.

“I have seen the medical student movement for single-payer grow significantly in just one year since the last PNHP annual meeting, commented Scott. “The 140 students in attendance were organized, inspired, and committed to fighting for truly universal health insurance. The Affordable Care Act has a few strengths, but it does not fundamentally reform our costly, inefficient, unjust health care system. It still treats health care as a commodity to be traded not a public good. While single-payer reform may seem inevitable to some, it will only occur through the tireless efforts of medical students, physicians, and health professionals. I was honored to lead a workshop that could offer students some tools and insights into making that leap from advocate to activist.”

The conference included an additional day of Leadership Training for those who were new to single payer or wanted to learn how to better discuss it with others. The Leadership Training was held on November 1 and began with instruction on how to present the concept of single payer health care in a Grand Rounds format. Three Pritzker students (Brandon Berger, MS1; Rachel Stones, MS1; Pamela Peters, MS1) were able to attend this workshop through generous scholarships from either the Nicholas Skala Student Activist Scholarship fund or the Illinois Single Payer Coalition.

“It was refreshing to be around so many doctors and students who are passionate and actively working towards a more equitable health care system,” said Rachel. “I became much more informed about single-payer and I will definitely be continuing the learning process. I was also inspired by the things that medical students are doing and the activism they are involved with around the country.”

Whether new to activism or a health policy and advocacy veteran, all who attended the conference benefited greatly from the thought-provoking presentations and the equally stimulating dialogues that followed them.